The Day of Pentecost (Year A), 31 May 2020
May 31, 2020 | by David J. Lull
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Acts 2.1–21||Psalm 104.24–34, 35b||1 Corinthians 12.3b–13||John 20.19–23|
The Spirit that gave life to all living creatures (Psalm 104) is the same Spirit that was the life-giving Spirit in Jesus (Gospel of John), launched the first believers on a mission to spread the gospel (Acts 2), and shaped the community of the many members of the one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
Who has the Spirit chosen to lead the church today? Women, as well as men! The young, as well as the old! All the faithful of every status and station in life! What tasks is the Spirit calling the church to today? To faithfully proclaim the gospel! To work for justice! To feed the hungry! To release those imprisoned in poverty! To heal the broken hearted! To raise up responsible stewards of the planet!
Psalm 104.24–34, 35b
It’s worth reading the first 23 verses. For example, the description of God in vv. 1–4 sounds a lot like the theophanic description of “Pentecost” in Acts 2.1–4. Compare the descriptions of life-giving waters in vv. 5–16 and the “living waters” flowing from “the believer’s heart” in John 7.38 (possibly alluding to Isaiah 58.11, as well as 44.3 and 55.1); also relevant are John 4.10, 14, and 19.34.
This psalmist praises God for filling all creation with God’s life-giving Spirit. This Spirit is the same life-giving Spirit that was in Jesus (see John 6.63 and 7.38–39), and it is the same Spirit that launched the first believers on a mission to spread the gospel (Acts 2.1–13), fulfilling the prophecy of Joel 2.28–32 (Acts 2.14–21). This is not only about the unity of “God-in-three-persons” or the singularity of God’s Spirit and the unity of its work of creation, transformation of human lives, and presence in the community of believers. It is also about the unity of all living creatures through their sharing of the same Spirit. In addition, the psalmist attributes feelings to nonhuman creatures, including feelings of God! They all look to God for their food (v. 27) and are “terrified” when they feel God has ignored them (v. 29).
The psalmist’s wish that God would “find pleasure” in the things God created (v. 31) and in the psalmist’s doxological “meditation” (v. 34a) implies that God also has feelings. This is not the impassive God of classical theism! The psalmist’s God reacts to and evaluates what God has done.
The psalmist attributes to God “natural disasters,” like earthquakes and volcanoes (v. 32), which some today call “acts of God.” Leviathan, an ocean dragon thought to be related to the Ugaritic Lothan or Babylonian Tiamat, a mythological primeval monster causing chaos, is part of God’s created order (v. 26). Some translations have it “playing,” “frolicking,” or having “sport” in the oceans (e.g., the NRSV, NIV, and NET); but others have God “mocking” or “playing” with it (e.g., the LXX and NAB). But even this sea-monster, like all other creatures, depends on God for food (v. 27), is “terrified” when God ignores its needs (v. 29), and is created by God’s Spirit (v. 30). When the psalmist hopes that God’s “glory”—the created order—would last forever and that God would find pleasure in God’s “works”—the created order and everything God created in it (v. 31)—that hope includes this primeval chaos-monster!
Some of us disagree with the belief that natural disasters are “acts of God.” But, when the psalmist says God sometimes “hides” God’s “face”—that is, when God ignores the needs of creatures and does not act—that implies not all natural disasters are “acts of God,” though they might be the result of God’s inaction (also see my comments about v. 35a below). Besides, we can admire the psalmist’s “nevertheless”—the persistence in praising God when “bad things” happen (vv. 34–35).
The Lectionary doesn’t want us to read v. 35a: “May sinners utterly disappear from the earth and may the wicked be no more.” But the Bible is full of references to God’s angry judgment of sinners. A just God does not desire “the wicked” to continue in their wickedness; rather, a just God desires that they would turn away from wickedness—that is, that they repent. If God doesn’t judge sinners, God would not be just.
From a “process” theological perspective, I would say God’s judgment is God’s exclusion of everything “wicked” in the past from God’s providential aims for the future. As a result of God’s judgment, whatever is “wicked” becomes part of the waste heap of history as far as God’s purposes are concerned. The “world,” on the other hand, is free to reject God’s judgment and repeat past forms of “wickedness” by conforming to them. That’s one way to understand “objective” or systemic sin.
Finally, v. 35a, which comes out of the blue, seems to imply that “sinners” and “the wicked” are whoever and whatever disturbs or obstructs God’s creative order, which tends toward flourishing life balanced by natural death. Imagine how quickly the world would be overcrowded with every living species if the span of their lives were not limited by death! We can think of whoever and whatever ruins the land, water, and air. Would that God were to act unilaterally, so that God could banish corporations that create pollution and threaten to drive into extinction living species, including humankind! Or at least banish greed and environmental ignorance and recklessness! God’s aims seek to turn all creatures away from such wickedness. It’s up to creatures to do the turning! With the psalmist, let’s sound the alarm of God’s judgment, protest the threat of the next great extinction, and work for a reimagined, ecologically sustainable civilization!
[see April 19: Second Sunday of Easter (or John 7.37–39)]
John 20.19–23 is one of several stories in this Gospel that would merit being read on the Day of Pentecost. Another one is the Lectionary’s alternative, 7.37–39. This story invokes images of “the last day” of the festival of Tabernacles (or Booths), celebrated at the end of the fall harvest. The following verses from Zechariah are associated with this festival:
- “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (12.10 NRSV).
- “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity” (13.1 NRSV).
- “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter” (14.8 NRSV).
- “Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14.16 NRSV).
During this seven-day festival in Jerusalem, a priest would fill a pitcher with water from the Gihon fountain, which filled the pool of Siloam, while a choir sang Isaiah 12.3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (NRSV). Then a procession would go up to the temple through the Water Gate and proceed to the altar, where the priest would pour the water into a funnel, allowing the water to flow on the ground, while the people sang Psalm 118.25, “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!” (NRSV). John 7.37–39 is told to claim these prophecies have been fulfilled in Jesus. [For the above, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible, 29, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 326-27.]
Many times in this Gospel, Jesus promised the Spirit would come (3.34; 4.23; 7.39; 14.15–17, 26; 15.26; and 16.13). John the Baptist also said Jesus was the one who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1.33). In 3.5–8, Jesus says entry into “God’s kingdom” is by being “born through water and Spirit.” John 6.63 says that Jesus’ words were already the life-giving Spirit. After Jesus’ last words on the cross, “it is finished,” 19.30 continues with an ambiguous note, which could be translated “then, when he bowed his head, he gave up his spirit,” meaning “he died”; or it could be translated, “…, he handed over the spirit” (the NAB), which would imply that Jesus relinquished or returned his life to God. Both translations use the lowercase “spirit,” which refers to Jesus’ created human spirit. Another translation uses the uppercase for the divine “Spirit”: “…, he passed on the Spirit,” which would anticipate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the Spirit in the story of Jesus’ Easter appearance to his disciples (20.22).
In 20.19–23, the second part of the Easter story, we find the disciples sheltering in place behind locked doors, “for fear of the Judean authorities.” In this Gospel, the word traditionally translated “Jews” sometimes refers to members of the Johannine community or Judeans who were not adversaries of the Johannine community, and sometimes to Judeans who were adversaries of Jesus and his followers. In v. 19, it refers to the latter. With this in mind, preachers might consider what this story proclaims to those who live in fear and hunker down when threatened by “authorities”—for example, border police, ICE, and local police for refugees or asylum-seekers, and people with black or brown skin. What would it mean if the Easter Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you” (20.19)?
In this story, Jesus entered and stood in the center of the room. The story about the empty tomb (vv. 1–18) seems to assume that Jesus exited the tomb after the stone sealing it had been rolled away (v. 1). What are we supposed to assume about how the Easter Jesus entered the room where the disciples were hiding? That they unlocked the door, which would be the only way an ordinary human being could have come in? Or that the Easter Jesus was no longer an ordinary human being and was able to pass through walls and locked doors, like a god or spirit? Remember how, in the previous narrative (vv. 1–18), Mary did not recognize Jesus, because the Easter Jesus was physically different from the pre-Easter Jesus.
Resurrection narratives in the Gospels, instead of being literal descriptions of how Jesus appeared to Jesus’ followers, are witnesses—proclamation—to their experience of his real presence after his crucifixion. They are witnesses—proclamation—to their belief that God ensured that neither Jesus’ executioners nor death silenced Jesus’ proclamation of God’s peace. God, not they, had the last word.
This narrative begins with what Jesus’ disciples heard—his words: “Peace be with you!” In this story, the risen Jesus appears and speaks to Jesus’ disciples. But Jesus’ presence and words are not just for them. The Easter Jesus is present as God’s Word, the divine Word (1.1), with anyone who lives in fear of harm. The gospel, in Jesus’ words, not only during the Easter season, is that God’s peace is with everyone who is fearful.
This Easter narrative also has a visual aspect—it seems to claim Jesus’ followers saw the Easter Jesus in some bodily form. The sequence is significant: Jesus spoke and showed his hands and feet, and then, when the disciples “saw the Lord,” they “rejoiced” (v. 20). The importance of showing his hands and feet is that they identified the one who spoke “Peace be with you!” as “the Lord.” This story implies the Easter Jesus was still known and proclaimed as a person who was crucified. In other words, this story is a witness to the disciples’ experience of the presence of the Easter Jesus as the Jesus who remained faithful to message of God’s nonviolent “Peace,” not the promise of a false peace and prosperity through military and economic domination, and for that was crucified by the Romans with the help of Judean authorities.
Jesus’ promise of “Peace” is both political and spiritual. It is spiritual because it offers those who live in fear, for whatever reason, comfort and strength to remain faithful to whatever cause God has called them to serve. It is political because Jesus’ promise of “peace” is set in the context of Jesus’ followers living in fear of Roman and Judean authorities who crucified Jesus. The peace of God was the source of the crucified Jesus’ faithfulness to God as he faced down the demand to conform to the false peace that the authorities offered. This Jesus, with his faithfulness in response to the peace of God and his promise of peace to others, can be a companion with those who face injustice today.
As in all the Gospels, stories of Jesus’ postmortem appearances to the disciples are not just about Jesus; they are also about Jesus’ followers, whom Jesus commissioned and empowered to continue Jesus’ ministry (vv. 21–23). Jesus sends them, just like God sent Jesus (v. 21); then, with his breath, they received the Holy Spirit (v. 22). That means, first, that Jesus, not they, initiated their post-Easter ministry; second, that they were empowered, not by their own self-confidence, will power, or talents, but by a Holy Spirit, which came from the Easter Jesus and so is his Spirit, which he “passed on” to them (19.30); and third, that their ministry should conform to the ministry that Jesus received from God, in contrast to a ministry that would conform to the wishes of the wealthy and powerful of the world.
It is tempting to say they are authorized to “forgive the sins of any persons” and to withhold forgiveness from “any persons” (vv. 21–23). But that ignores the conditional “if you forgive” and “if you don’t forgive.” It does not say “you shall forgive any… and you shall not forgive any.” Rather, the point here is the effect and performative power of what they say about anyone’s sins. It sounds more like a warning: “Be aware of the power of your words! They have consequences! If you proclaim forgiveness to anyone, their sins will be forgiven; and if you refuse to proclaim forgiveness to anyone, they will remain unforgiven.” Because Jesus sent them, their words should conform to Jesus’ words to sinners: “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1.15; compare Mark 2.5 par. Matthew 9.2 and Luke 5.20; Mark 11.25; Matthew 6.12–15 par. Luke 11.4; Matthew 18.21–22 par. Luke 17.3–4; Luke 7.48; 23.34; and 24.47). As John the Baptism proclaimed, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1.29)!
[also see April 19: Second Sunday of Easter (or Numbers 11.24–30)]
Compare the following with Carl R. Holladay’s Acts: A Commentary, in the New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 89–98:
This section of Acts 2 consists of the theophanic appearance of the Holy Spirit, which inspired each of the apostles (and the other believers mentioned in 1.13–15 and “all” in 2.1?) to speak in different foreign languages (2.1–4), their speaking in the different native languages of devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem (2.5–13), and the first part of Peter’s address to the Judeans and other Jews and “proselytes” from foreign lands living in Jerusalem (2.14–36), which interprets this event as the fulfillment of the prophetic tradition quoted in Acts 2.14–21 (Joel 2.28–32 and alluding to Numbers 11.29). The rest of Peter’s address focuses on who Jesus was and his significance (2.22–36). Rounding out the remainder of Acts 2 are descriptions of the reception of Peter’s message by three thousand in the audience, their baptism, and their participation in the life of the community of believers (2.37–42), and the way of life in the earliest community of believers (2.43–47).
The word transliterated “Pentecost” is the Greek word for the Old Testament Shavuot, “festival of weeks” (e.g., see Deuteronomy 16.10), celebrated on the 50th day after Passover. Originally (see Leviticus 23.15–16 and Deuteronomy 16.9), it was an agricultural festival at the end of the grain harvest. The New Testament contains remnants of this Jewish festival, but in the history of Christianity it came to be associated entirely with the story in Acts 2 about the coming of the Holy Spirit to launch the earliest believers’ mission to spread the gospel.
The story in Acts 2 might look like an historical account of an actual event—an event in history, whose details anyone at the time could have observed—but vv. 1–4 echo theophany stories in the Bible (and other ancient near eastern literature), especially Joel 2.28–32, quoted in Peter’s address, as well as God’s appearances to Moses in the “burning bush” in the wilderness at the base of Mt. Sinai, also called Horeb (Exodus 3.1–6), and again on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19.16–20). Also see the description of God in Psalm 104.1–4. Nevertheless, it must reflect some generative experience launching the mission to spread the gospel. Jesus’ execution would not have generated this mission without help from an upbeat, energizing, purpose-focused experience. The disciples’ explanation is that they experienced a living Jesus after his execution and some days later experienced God’s Spirit inspiring them to compose and spread a message about Jesus and his significance.
The author and readers of Acts 2 would have understood that the details were symbols and metaphors for a theological statement about the divine origins of the mission to spread the message about Jesus: namely, that this mission did not arise from charlatans, whose ambition was to promote themselves; rather, it was God’s Holy Spirit who called and empowered them for it. It was also a Christological statement about the relationship between Jesus and this mission-enabling Holy Spirit: Jesus had promised to send the power of the Holy Spirit to his disciples for the very purpose of being his witnesses and proclaiming repentance and forgiveness in his name (see Luke 9.1; 12.12; 22.29–30; 24.47–49; Acts 1.2, 5, 8; and compare John the Baptist’s prophecy in Luke 3.16). The Lectionary, when it recommends Numbers 11.24–30 as an alternative of Acts 2.1–21, implies this “day of Pentecost” is the fulfillment of Numbers 11.29 as well as Joel 2.28–32. In other words, prophecy-fulfillment theology is at work in Acts 2.
When the Holy Spirit came to them, “they were all together in one place” (2.1). On the assumption that “in one place” refers to the “upper story room” on the roof of a private house (BDAG ὑπερῷον, hyperōon) mentioned in 1.13, the phrase “they were all together” refers to a “crowd” of 120 “brothers and sisters” (ἀδελφοὶ, adelphoi, “brethren”) that includes “women, especially Mary the mother of Jesus, and his siblings,” in addition to the original eleven apostles and Matthais, who replaced Judas (1.13–26). If “all” in v. 4 is the same “all” in v. 1, it would also refer to the 120 believers that included the apostles and women and Jesus’ siblings, so that all 120 believers, Apostles, women, and Jesus’ siblings, “began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak boldly.”
Supporters of the traditional interpretation, that “all” in both instances refers only to the twelve apostles, argue that “they” in 2.1 refers to the nearest antecedent, which is Matthais and the original eleven apostles in 1.26 and the exclusive mention of the apostles in 2.43. However, at the beginning of 1.26, the antecedent of “they cast lots” is found in 1.15: namely, the “crowd” of 120 “brothers and sisters,” which included, not only the original eleven apostles (1.13), but also women, as well as Jesus’ siblings (1.13–14). Besides, the quotation from the prophet Joel is gender-inclusive, age-inclusive, and social status-inclusive (Acts 2.17–18).
The same Greek word (γλῶσσα, glōssa) is used for “tongues spreading out like a fire” and “other languages” (v. 4). In 1 Corinthians 12–14, the same word refers to ecstatic language inspired by the Spirit, like the language of angels (13.1). Here, however, it refers to native languages of Asia Minor, Egypt, and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean region (Acts 2.5–11). The native language of “Galileans” would have been an Aramaic dialect and, perhaps, Greek as well.
To the suggestion that they were drunk with “new wine” (v. 13), Peter’s rebuttal is comical: it was only nine in the morning! A smart storyteller told joke that implied it would have been more difficult to mount a defense later in the day. But something else is going on here. Peter’s address is a defense against an alternative interpretation of Spirit-filled speech as the kind of ecstatic state associated with Dionysius, the god of wine and theater. In addition to the initial easy and comical defense (“It’s too early in the day!”), the defense turns to Israel’s prophetic tradition. The Spirit-filled message about “the mighty acts God has performed” was the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy about the coming of a new age, when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2.14–21, quoting Joel 2.28–32a). This might sound like an odd summary of the gospel. However, the phrase “the mighty acts God has performed” refers both to the “omens in the sky above and signs on the earth below” Joel described and those described in Acts 2.1–4, and to “the mighty acts God performed” throughout Israel’s history to save those who turn to God for salvation, ending with God’s acts in and for Jesus Christ (Acts 2.22–36).
Peter’s prominence among the apostles (“the twelve”) can be traced to Luke 24.12 and 34, which allude to the tradition that, after his crucifixion, the Easter Jesus appeared first to Peter and then to “the twelve” (also see 1 Corinthians 15.5). He presides over the selection of Judas’ replacement (Acts 1.15–26), delivers an address on Pentecost (Acts 2.14–36), which is the first composition of the gospel message about Jesus, and plays the lead role in the first phase of the spread of the gospel (Acts 2–12). After that, Paul moves to the center of the Jesus movement (Acts 13–28). Later, Peter seems to have been surpassed by James, as the leader of the Jerusalem community of believers (Acts 12.17; 15.13; 21.18; and compare Galatians 1.18–19 and 2.9, 12).
1 Corinthians 12.3b–13
The seven undisputed letters of Paul have no story of a single event in which the Spirit entered the community of faith like those in the Gospel of John and Acts 2. What Paul shares with them, however, is the centrality of the work of the Spirit in the transformation of life and the formation of a community to proclaim the gospel about Jesus. To capture Paul’s full vision of this work of the Spirit, my commentary covers most of 1 Corinthians 12.
Some scholars argue that Paul assumed individuals received the Spirit at baptism, but due to the lack of a clear connection between baptism and the Spirit anywhere, that view is disputed. A clearer connection is between participation in Jesus through “faith” and the reception of the Spirit, sometimes identified with Jesus (Romans 8.9 and Philippians 1.19; also see 1 Corinthians 15.45; Philippians 2.1) and sometimes identified with God (Romans 8.9, 14; 15.19; 1 Corinthians 2.11; 3.16; 7.40; Philippians 3.3; 1 Thessalonians 4.8; also see Romans 5.5; 9.1; 14.17; 15.13, 16; 1 Corinthians 6.19; 12.3; 2 Corinthians 1.21–22). In Romans 8.9–17, “the Spirit of Christ,” “the Spirit of God,” and the unqualified “Spirit” (also see Romans 8.26; 1 Corinthians 12.11; Galatians 3.3; 4.29; 5.17, 18, 25; 6.8; 1 Thessalonians 1.5, 6; 5.19) refer to the same Spirit and can simply be called “Christ” (compare 2 Corinthians 13.13 and Galatians 3.14). Participation in Christ and the reception of the Spirit, according to Paul’s clearest statements, occur in the context of proclamation of the gospel and through its power (Romans 10.5–17; 1 Corinthians 1.18–25; and Galatians 3.1–5)!
Paul describes the “body” of an individual who belongs to God as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6.19), but he also calls the community of faith is “God’s temple,” because “God’s Spirit lives in you” (3.16–17). In both cases, Paul uses the Greek word ναός (naos), which refers to the inner room of a temple complex (the ἱερόν, hieron). In non-Jewish temples, a statue of the god would be housed there: Paul and other Jews call the statue an “idol” (εἴδωλον, eidōlon; see 12.2) and its sanctuary an “idol’s temple” (εἰδωλεῖον, eidōleion; see 8.10). The temple in Jerusalem also had its inner sanctuary (ναός, naos), the “Holy of Holies,” where an altar (and, earlier, the ark of the covenant: see 1 Kings 6.19) symbolized God’s presence. When Paul says, “God’s temple is holy,” it implies that God’s Spirit was as much present in the community as it was in the Jerusalem temple’s “Holy of Holies.” It also implies that God’s presence in the community also makes it “holy,” pure and undefiled by anything sinful. Not only do they belong to God (6.19), but they also are united with Christ (6.15). In this respect, whereas Paul’s thought-world is unlike that of Acts 2, it is similar to the Gospel of John’s emphasis on the mutual in-dwelling of God, Jesus, and those who belong to God and Jesus.
The following is adapted from David J. Lull and William A. Beardslee, 1 Corinthians, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 106–09 and 110–13:
Even though the Lectionary didn’t want us to read 1 Corinthians 12.2 and 3a, they are important foils for v. 3b. The NRSV translates the enigmatic cry in v. 3a, “Let Jesus be cursed!” Since it is an exact opposite to the acclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” a better translation is, “Jesus is cursed.” Paul probably invented the former cry as the opposite of true Spirit-inspired speech; or someone may have uttered it in circumstances no longer clear to us. In any case, for Paul it was obvious no one inspired by the Spirit could utter such a thing, any more than an idol could give Spirit-inspired speech (v. 2). The Spirit witnesses only to the truth, and not both to the truth and its opposite.
Scholars usually assume “Jesus is Lord” was an ecstatic cry, spoken when worshipers were carried away, not in control of their mind and speech. They have in mind chapter 14, where Paul describes what kinds of Spirit-inspired speech were of that “ecstatic” kind—speaking when the “mind” was “unproductive” (14.14) and requiring interpreters, because it was unintelligible (14.1–33a). The acclamation “Jesus is Lord” was not that kind of speech, because it consisted of understandable words in the common language of the day.
Today, when Christians say, “Jesus is Lord,” most think of it as their own confession of faith without the Spirit’s involvement. In the context of chapter 12, Paul highlighted the involvement of the Spirit for two reasons. The first comes directly from this context. Paul says idols are voiceless and lifeless objects (v. 2). In contrast, the God “from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (8.6) speaks. If Paul thought that “Jesus is Lord” could be known and, therefore, spoken with the human mind and reason alone, this acclamation would not provide the criterion of true Spirit-inspired speech as a contrast to the purported speech of idols.
The second reason is that Paul did not think the human mind and reason alone could come to the truth that “Jesus is Lord.” Paul’s statements about Jesus in 1.10–2.16 clearly say, “the message of the cross is foolishness” to wise and reasonable people. It cannot be derived from reasonable human wisdom but can only be received from and taught by the Spirit. Common human wisdom would not say “the message of the cross” is “the power of God” for salvation, which is one meaning of the acclamation “Jesus is Lord.” That cry, Paul claimed, must be Spirit-inspired—that is, the Spirit’s witness to the truth of “the message of the cross” as “the power of God” to bring about salvation.
The acclamation “Jesus is Lord” presupposes the Spirit is a new power that enters a person and, at the same time, a reality into which a person enters. Paul knew people were constituted by their culture and their past, as well as by their own choices; but they also encountered new powers that brought new possibilities for their lives. His point is that, as “Lord” or “Christ,” Jesus is the criterion for judging the truth of any such new transforming powers.
Paul could only think of the acclamation “Jesus is Lord” as speech inspired by the Spirit because it was contrary to common, reasonable wisdom. A “crucified Messiah” was as unthinkable for Jews as was a crucified “Lord”—or king, or emperor! It became intelligible only because the Spirit testified to it in this acclamation—a kind of “Amen!” to the “message of the cross.” The Spirit also demonstrates that Jesus “is Lord” in the believers’ experience of having their lives transformed by the mutual indwelling of Christ in them and of them in Christ (compare 12.12–13 and, for example, 6.12–20; 10.16–17, 23–25). Not only do the scriptures testify that Jesus “died for our sins” (15.3) and “was raised” (15.4), but so the Spirit also points to Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that “Jesus is Lord” (compare 15.1–11 and 15.12–28).
If it were not for this witness of the Spirit to Christ’s own transformation through resurrection and to Christ’s power to transform the lives of others, which are two sides of one witness, one gospel, one “good news” (15.1; compare 4.15; 9.12, 14, 18, 23), no one would proclaim that the crucified Jesus is the “Lord” of their life. Even with that witness, it is not clear why anyone would do that! Perhaps it is because, even apart from this witness, and that of the scriptures, people can sense that it resonates with what life ought to be like and who God is.
To say that the crucified Jesus is “Lord” is to pay the highest honor one can give to someone. It is as if to say, “Look at the crucified Jesus if you want to know what the most honorable human being is like!” Of course, “the crucified Jesus” could evoke contrasting images of a person disgraced by his own actions, or of a pitiable victim of imperial violence. The “good news” image Paul hands on, however, is of a life lived, not for oneself alone or only for gratifying one’s own pleasures, but to serve a purpose beyond oneself (compare 10.33). In Paul’s terms, it is a life of serving “the power of God” to “save” others, even to the point of dying “for our sins.” It is also a life guided, not by the “flesh,” but by the “Spirit.” It is a life that shows that I, me, mine, and flesh and blood, are not all there is to true life—that life has its deepest and most abiding meaning when I, me, mine, and flesh and blood are rooted in and move toward something beyond them. If these things are all life has to offer, then nothing has any deeper or lasting value than is contained in each individual passing moment. For every moment is subject to “perpetual perishing”—except as their end is in God.
If “the crucified Jesus is Lord” is an image of what true life is like, it is also an image of who God is. To honor the crucified Jesus by saying this Jesus is “Lord” is to confer on Jesus a role and status reserved for God. It is, in effect, to say, “Look at the crucified Jesus if you want to know who God is!” God in this image contrasts sharply with the “unmoved Mover” of philosophy and the tyrant of imperial theology. This image is of a God whose “power” is not in being unmoved by anyone or anything in the world, but in being deeply—sometimes painfully and sometimes pleasantly—moved by literally everything, even to the point of “dying” for or on behalf of all of humanity’s “sins.” This God’s justice is not unmoved: it is poignantly and supremely moved to accept the burden of the flawed actions of creatures, including human “sinners,” and to transform them. The world thinks this kind of power is “foolishness” and “weakness,” but surely no greater power, and love, is conceivable. That is reason enough to utter the pronouncement, with the Spirit, that the crucified Jesus is indeed worthy of the title “Lord”!
Paul moves from the Spirit-inspired acclamation “Jesus is Lord” to a discussion of “spiritual gifts” (πνευματικοί, pneumatikoi; 12.1), that is, gifts given by the Spirit. His emphasis throughout chapter 12 is that the Spirit creates a variety of many “gifts.” This section begins with a threefold formula that makes this point: varieties of gifts (χαρίσματα, charismata; 12.4) from “the same Spirit,” varieties of services (διακονίαι, diakoniai) but “the same Lord,” and varieties of activities (ἐνεργήματα, energēmata) activated by “the same God” (12.4–6). This grouping of Spirit, Lord, and God—assuming “the same Lord” is Jesus, as 12.3 suggests—is a spontaneous formulation, from which (among other biblical texts) the later “Trinitarian” doctrine developed. The point is not that the three “persons” do different things, but that they jointly produce different activities that work for the common good (12.7).
The list of gifts (12.8–11) range from instruction in wisdom and knowledge, a special kind of “faith,” like the “complete faith” possessed by special individuals enabling them to do unusual things, like move mountains (13.2), an ability to heal, and powers to perform (other?) miracles, to gifts specifically expressed in worship—prophecy, the ability to discern different kinds of spirits and to speak in different kinds of languages (“tongues,” that is, ecstatic speech, resembling the language of angels: see 13.1), and, finally, the ability to interpret ecstatic speech (compare the list in 12.28–30). It is often said that Paul places these last two gifts at the end to remind his hearers that ecstatic speech was not as important as they thought. Perhaps so, but “wisdom” heads this list, even though Paul strongly downplayed it in 1.18–25 and 2.1–5, so we should not overemphasize the order. The main points are that all are real gifts of the same Spirit and that they are to be expressed without jealousy or contempt toward others but in ways appropriate to their divine source.
As with the gifting of the Spirit in the Gospel of John and Acts 2 by God and Jesus, here no one chooses their gifts. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be gifts! Rather, it is the Spirit who “distributes” them (12.11). This reinforces one of the major themes of the chapter: all the varied gifts are from God, through the Spirit, so no one should claim superiority because of their gift. This “anti-elitist” theme is one of the principal messages of 1 Corinthians.
In 12.12–26, Paul turns to the image of the body: its many and varied members make up one body. The community’s solidarity is already shown by its having overcome differences of ethnicity and social status: through the Spirit, Jews and Greeks, and slaves and the free all became members of the one “body of Christ” (12.13 and 27; compare 7.17–24). Here, in contrast to Galatians 3.28, the pair “male and female” is missing. Many interpreters think Paul left this pair out because in this letter he wished to emphasize the subordinate position of women. That may be, especially if Paul thought Spirit-inspired women were the source of problems in the Corinthian community (as Antoinette Clark Wire proposes in The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction Through Paul’s Rhetoric [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990]). In chapter 7 Paul only partly carried out the move toward full the equality of women and men; and 11.2–16 implies an ambivalence toward it in his convoluted arguments about appropriate differences in the appearance of women and men. (The interpretation and even the authenticity of 14.33–36, which explicitly express the subordination of women in the community, have been the subject of unresolved debate.) Or, perhaps, Paul simply thought two illustrations were enough.
Some readers conclude from 12.13, which mentions baptism into one body and drinking of one Spirit (compare 10.4), that the Spirit was first experienced at baptism. But Paul does not say this. His relativizing of his role as a baptizer (1.13–17) makes it unlikely. It is more likely that the first experience of the Spirit came as a response to preaching, before baptism (2.4; and Galatians 3.2, 5).
With the image of the body, the function of worship recedes into the background. The comparison of the church to a body brings together two different images: the church as “the body of Christ” (12.12b, 27), and the more general image of individual persons as organic members of a larger “body,” pictured in terms of the need of the various parts of the human body for one another (12.12a, 13–26). Ancient writers often used the body as a metaphor for the way the whole human community, or—as here—a particular community, needs different functions that must work together.
The central message of the body metaphor is that people are made, not to be isolated individuals, but to be interact with others and be in relationships with them. In view of the place of the independent “self-made” person in the mythology of our culture, the reminder that different kinds of people need one another at a fundamental level is worth emphasizing. Our current pandemic has brought home the message of this metaphor and its reality! Paul speaks directly to any individualistic piety of self-development with his familiar point that one part cannot proclaim itself independent of the rest (compare 11.11). Being together, both in social interaction and in caring for one another, is a basic feature of existence. All parts of the community, as one body, suffer and rejoice together (12.26).
In 12.14-26, Paul takes up another, less often noticed, aspect of the body-image. The need of each different member of the body for all the others presupposes each one has its own definite function in the body. One member of the body cannot choose to be another member.
The image of the human body is the image of fixed members contributing unchanging functions for the well-being of the body. “The body of Christ,” on the other hand, is a dynamic image of transformation. By sharing in “the body of Christ,” people entered a new realm of creative possibilities—the Spirit at work in “the body of Christ.” That opened them to act and live in ways that differed from their old ways. We get glimpses of this in the solidarity of Jews and Greeks, slaves and the free, as well as of women who, through the urging of the Spirit, engaged in new roles in the community.
Many readers might wish to resolve the tension between fixed social roles (such as wife, husband, slave, master, etc.) and counter-cultural roles inspired by the Spirit by saying that the public manifestation of the latter was still to come, in the final resolution of life in this world as it transitioned into a new age. In the meantime, one had to function within the already-established social roles. Paul partly believed this—perhaps too much—but he also knew that the Spirit and Christ refused to limit transformation in such a way. Roles like apostle, prophet, and teacher, as well as speaking in tongues, changed a person’s social position in the community, even if they were not accepted roles in the surrounding society.
Behind Paul’s concept of the variety of specific gifts of the Spirit lies the conviction—shared by Paul and the Corinthians—that life is open, not simply determined by the past or by what we ourselves do and choose. Some people speak of the Spirit and Christ as powers determining the result. Paul talks about them as liberating, opening up creative, life-transforming possibilities for living, acting, and participating in one another’s lives.
Modern people understand themselves as largely determined by their past and their environment. But they claim at least some freedom for themselves. What Paul says about the Spirit and Christ cannot be exhausted by either of these ways of understanding human existence.
The Spirit and Christ are a new “sphere” in which people become open to greater awareness of and readiness for dynamic interaction and connection with other people—and with the whole universe (though Paul does not explore this point fully, he does touch on it in Romans 8). Living in dynamic interaction with others—in response to their presence, need, and stimulation—gives us a far richer freedom and humanness than simply living from our past and the present exercise of our native individual freedom.
The Spirit is more than that. For Paul, real freedom comes from the Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 3.17). We may call it a “lure,” a leading toward freedom to consider new, transforming possibilities. Paul’s letter is full of dialogue between Paul and the Corinthians about how to exercise this freedom found in the Spirit to actualize new possibilities with responsible care for their whole community. Responsibility is central. But even more fundamental is the vision of life lived in the sphere of a liberating power enabling people to move beyond what is possible from the resources of the past and one’s present ability to manage oneself. Here the faith of Paul and the Corinthians stands as a continual and fundamental challenge to the modern vision. It is both a theological challenge—how to think about the power that makes transformation possible—and a practical challenge—how to help our communities become places where women and men will become aware of and responsive to this transformative power.
Think of this in relation to what the current pandemic is revealing about the way the past has led to a decaying environment from which it has been difficult to break free. Centuries of the treatment of people of color, especially of African descent, remain embedded in present society. Effects of that past and of the present environment are the major cause of the disproportionate rates of infection and mortality among people of color in this pandemic. Centuries of commitment to a form of capitalism that benefits the privileged few at the expense of the vast majority have propped up an inefficient, unequal healthcare delivery system that has been slow to respond effectively to this pandemic. It has also shown itself to be a failure at coping with the economic impact of the massive, strict stay-at-home and social/physical-distancing practices necessary to contain and mitigate the spread of this new virus. That kind of response to this pandemic has also shown the effects of centuries of reckless, extravagant reliance on fossil fuels in the pursuit of uncontrolled economic expansion: Aerial and satellite photographs of major population centers around the world have shown how dramatically air pollution in those places have been reduced by massive compliance with stay-at-home directives. Is this a time when people will response to the Spirit blowing across the globe, inspiring visions of an alternative racially and economically just and ecologically sustainable civilization? Let’s hope so! With God’s help, it can be so!
A second theme is the relation between the Spirit and Christ. For Paul and the Corinthians, the world was full of powers or “spirits.” Their world was not limited, as the modern world tends to be, to the past, the social environment, and the power of individual choice. Their problem was not whether a power existed beyond these factors, but how to distinguish among the various competing forces (compare 1 Thessalonians 5.19–22).
One test was of the felt intensity of these forces. This test had great appeal to some of the Corinthians. Another was simply the mysteriousness or “otherness” of the experienced force. These tests might be difficult for people to understand today, but another way of talking about them might help. First, most of us tend to pursue possibilities that are more strongly attractive and important and strike us as more interesting than other possibilities. We could say we tend to have more intense feelings for them than for others. Second, some people tend to go with possibilities that are “safer” because they are “tried and true,” that is, they have a long history of being implemented. That’s the seductive power of the past! Others, aware of the negative effects of the “safer” and “tried,” are not convinced these are “true” or the best possibilities, so they search for unfamiliar roads “not taken,” possibilities inspired by imagining new, creative alternatives to what the past has to offer. We may attribute the entertainment of these alternative possibilities to the Spirit.
For Paul there was another, definite and decisive test of the spirits and powers: only the Spirit that proclaims Christ is the Spirit from God, the Spirit that inspires the acclamation “Jesus is Lord” and makes for wholeness and life (12.1–3). That means that Christ is the decisive test of gifts of the Spirit, which is explicit throughout most of chapter 12.
This test is not easily applied. “Christ” was for Paul the transforming, unifying power at work in the community. “Christ” was an image and, like any image, was a woven texture of many elements. (For the following, compare William A. Beardslee, A House for Hope [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972]. ch. 8). The Jesus known to the first disciples—namely, the “historical Jesus,” the “pre-Easter Jesus”—was one thread in the weave, but not a prominent one. Attitudes, visions, moral stances learned from others who gave their lives to Christ—Jews and Greeks, slaves and the free, women and men, as well as Paul’s and his communities’ continuing experience of God’s presence in Christ—all contributed to the image. “Christ” is a composite image, presenting God’s transforming power to the imagination, the choosing self, and the community of those who belonged to Christ. For Paul, the cross was central to the image of Christ; and it, too, is complex. It has often been interpreted in a repressive way, or in a manner that deprived the individual of responsibility, as if God had to do it all. But for Paul, it was an image of the paradox of life through death, of finding through giving up.
The Christ of whom Paul wrote was a flexible, growing image, as Christ has remained until today. It is precisely because this image can be transformed to include impulses from a wide variety of sources that it can remain vital. So today we cannot mechanically apply tests from the past to decide whether an impulse is in touch with Christ. We can only discern with sensitivity to where God is leading us now.
This point leads to a third theme of chapter 12. Marks of the Spirit of Christ—cooperation, awareness of the other’s difference and inexpressible value, flexibility, readiness to listen, participation in the other’s pain and joy (12.26)—are measures of real community, signs that people are open and ready to respond to one another. This is a wonderful vision, and one that calls for repeated renewal of our own vision of what community can be.
But a caution is in order. Too often Christians think such mutual openness can be realized without anyone being transformed. To such thinking, openness means simply accepting established roles. Parts of chapter 12 can be read to reinforce such a static reading, but Paul’s vision is one of profound transformation. Vital ferment is often uncomfortable. Paul was far more open to such ferment than is often thought, and his message no doubt has brought a lot of it throughout Christian history. Our task as interpreters is to be open to the vision of common life and of the caring for one another that was central for Paul—so important in our time of unreflective individualism—and to be ready to accept the struggle, and the patience with struggle, required if we are to move toward actualizing this vision. Hope for this task is the Spirit’s persistent inspiration of communities committed to the confession, “Jesus is Lord”!
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).